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Isaiah 24-27 – Overview

Many of the issues of Biblical criticism are illustrated in these four chapters from the book of Isaiah. The book of Isaiah as a whole is fertile ground for such study, but one has to take a reasonable sized bite for an illustration. What I want to do with these chapters is discuss how various critical tools apply, or do not apply, to the text, and what can be learned from applying those tools. I will focus my attention on tools that are available to those who do not read Hebrew, looking for ways in which they can evaluate various critical claims for themselves using easily available materials.

To accomplish this I’m going to post on the following. (I may break some of these items into multiple entries or combine them where one element is very short.)

1. The text, applying textual criticism to get an idea of the state of the text.
2. Literary criticism, probably combined with elements of genre criticism. Are these four chapters a unit that can be studied independently as a whole? What type of literature are they?
3. Form criticism, a look at the individual units, if any, in the text.
4. Source and Redaction criticism, how we got to the state of the text.
5. Tradition criticism, summarizing 3 & 4.
6. Genre and canonical criticism, taking us back to #2 and tying this back together.

If you want to follow the procedures, you can start by reviewing the book of Isaiah as a whole, and then by reading these four chapters several times–at least enough times so that you have a mental picture of the passage as a whole. As you do this, you can look for your own answer to the question of whether this is itself a literary unit as part of the book of Isaiah, whether I have drawn the boundaries of the unit I’m going to study correctly. At the same time, you can prepare for the state of canonical criticism, which will ask how this fits into the overall message of Isaiah as that message fits into the message of canonical scripture.

The book of Isaiah contains 66 chapters. Conservative Christians generally believe that it was written by one prophet, Isaiah, who lived in Judah starting late in the reign of Uzziah and possibly continuing his ministry into the reign of Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son and successor. Critical scholarship, however, has generally divided the book into at least two parts, chapter 1-39 as First Isaiah and 40-66 as Second Isaiah. Chapters 36-39, no matter what the scheme, are a historical interlude telling the story of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah and his eventual defeat. The vast majority divide that further into 40-55 as Second Isaiah and 56-66 as Third Isaiah.

General readers often get the idea that the critical view of Isaiah is that simple (or quite possibly complain of its complexity) without realizing that the critical view of the book is many times more complicated than that. Form critics will look for a life setting and date of composition for individual prophetic oracles or other literary elements in the text. Source critics may provide a variety of dates for individual sources, and so you can have material from any date in the general period of the Isaiah tradition. To get an idea of the dates and their spread, see Isaiah Timeline. This gives the broad outlines of this scheme of dating.

Individual portions of the text, may have been spoken, written, or added to the collection at any time, however. Let’s look at an example from outside our narrow range of chapters. In Isaiah 14, we find three separate sections that are clearly defined: 14:1-13, 24-27, and 28-32. The first is against Babylon, and appears to assume a situation with Judah in exile. Some would suggest, however, that the dirge (3-21) could have been written at any time, and then the prose introduction (1-2) and conclusion (22-23), which are the only parts that mention Babylon by name, are added by a redactor in the exile. That redactor could be second Isaiah (the author of chapters 40-55), or even someone after that time. Trying to answer such questions wouldl involve form and redaction criticism. Verses 24-27, however are addressed to Assyria. By the time of the Babylonian exile, Assyria was long gone as the primary foe of Judah, but in the time of First Isaiah, Assyria was the primary enemy. The third oracle is against the Philistines, and it would be much harder to date. My point here is that this chapter is one of the simpler ones in which to discuss dating. If one accepts the composite authorship of Isaiah at all, one will find plenty of complexity and a considerable number of cases in which one admits one doesn’t know.

Let’s turn our thoughts back to chapters 24-27. If they are a unit, then when was that unit written? First, we will have to ask whether there are elements of this unit that were written separately and then combined, or whether the passage was written as a unified whole. As I noted above, Isaiah 14 is relatively simple to deal with, with specific enemies addressed, and clear beginnings and ends for the three sections of the chapters. But the absence of that sort of clarity in 24-27 has not prevented commentators from presenting a number of divisions. As a Bible student, don’t simply take a scholar’s word for the divisions. Each and every one of these items is controversial; test it all, accept what convinces you. We’ll look at the possible divisions when we discuss form criticism.

But is there anything that can be said about date? One of the easily available tools I will follow through this study is the Oxford Study Bible (REB). This Bible provides some pretty good notes and introductory articles on many topics. In its note on chapter 24 it says, “The literary style with the tendency thoward apocalyptic (24:21-23) and the theological perspective of final judgment (v. 21) indicate that this collection originated long after Isaiah of Jerusalem (see Introduction)” (page 727). Here’s where you need to put on your own critical glasses and think seriously about the claim made.

There are some assumptions here:

  1. Apocalyptic developed in a generally linear fashion so that one can place a particular example of it on a continuum.
  2. Apocalyptic started late
  3. This passage is an example of apocalyptic literature
  4. Final judgment is a late element in Hebrew literature

One critical piece of this puzzle would be the dating of Daniel. I’ve called attention to a number of commentaries in recent blog entries, and one should note that such scholars as Gleason Archer and Joyce Baldwin maintain that Daniel was written in the 6th century BCE, while Ernest Lucas allows such dating. Hartman & Di Lella along with Porteous solidly supported a late dating (2nd century BCE) for Daniel. If one assumes some sort of linear development for apocalyptic, then Daniel is probably somewhere toward the early middle part of that process. It’s not quite up to the book of Revelation, but it’s more apocalyptic than some chapters in Ezekiel and perhaps more similar to Zechariah. Those four centuries of difference in the dating of Daniel could make a substantial difference in how one dates these chapters. In addition, there are those who regard Daniel as a composite itself, with some elements being quite early (5th-4th century BCE) and some later. Some strongly apocalyptic elements (Daniel 7, for example) are considered by these scholars as quite early.

Whether apocalyptic was a linear development or not is hard to say, partially because we are not so sure just what apocalyptic was, and as is the case here, we aren’t too sure when to date it. If you are interested in testing this element of dating, try reading Ezekiel 37-39 and the book of Zechariah and comparing them to these four chapters. Some elements of apocalyptic generally include symbolic visions, emphasis on eschatology, judgment, and angelic guides or interpreters. If there was a progression, where do you think these chapters would fall? You can hold that thought as we study them and see if you change your mind.

My next entry will be a survey of the text of these four chapters as we see them in English translations. I will discuss textual issues uses some original language resources, but I will focus on what you can learn from the text and footnotes of a few English Bible versions.

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